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NBA Daily: Nerlens Noel: Recruited And Rejuvenated

After a difficult start to his NBA career, Nerlens Noel is eager to turn the page and be a difference-maker with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Ben Nadeau

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To put it lightly, it’s been a less than idyllic start to Nerlens Noel’s career.

After enduring three-plus difficult years with the Philadelphia 76ers, Noel was unceremoniously deemed as surplus in the process and got traded to Dallas, where he’s dealt with injury and controversy since early 2017. But today, Noel isn’t worried about all that anymore. He’s now sharply focused on what’s ahead with the Oklahoma City Thunder — the franchise that courted the talented shot-blocker as soon as the clock struck midnight on July 1.

“I really think it’s a great opportunity,” Noel said during a Las Vegas Summer League scrum. “I think it’s a great fit for myself and the organization. With the athleticism and the pieces that they have now, I think I can really come and make a significant difference to the speed of the game.

“It’s really been a great last few days, going to OKC, signing and just feeling very welcome from the whole organization — that really means a lot.”

Punctuated by the all-important re-signing of marquee free agent Paul George, the Thunder have quietly put together an offseason worth buzzing about. The addition of Noel — plus Dennis Schröder and the subtraction of Carmelo Anthony — has the persistent Thunder right on the cusp of the conference’s elite conversation once again. While Noel made the slightly debatable decision last summer to take the qualifying offer over the Mavericks’ alleged contract worth four years and $70 million, he’s surely landed on his feet now.

From a hotdog-related benching and a late-season suspension to being chased down by two perennial All-Stars, Noel is more than satisfied with his new situation.

“[Westbrook and George] called the night of free agency when I was meeting with coach Billy [Donovan],” Noel said. “They told me, let’s get it done and that we want to do some special things this year. I definitely felt where they were coming from. I gave it a little thought and with as much love as they showed, it became an easy decision.”

The 6-foot-11 big man hasn’t played more than 60 games since 2015-16, but his two initial forays into professional basketball were worth writing home about. During his sophomore campaign with the 76ers, Noel averaged 11.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 1.5 blocks per game on 52.1 percent from the floor. And although Joel Embiid and, for a moment, Jahlil Okafor eventually won out in the Nerlens-defined “logjam,” Noel could provide the rim-protecting edge that the Thunder have missed since trading Serge Ibaka in 2016.

In 2017-18, Noel put up the worst numbers of his young career, tallying just 4.4 points and 5.6 rebounds over a paltry 15.7 minutes per game. Combined with surgery to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb in December, Noel would miss 42 consecutive games and then struggle to rejoin head coach Rick Carlisle’s rotation. Of course, Noel is only 24 years old and still has loads of potential, particularly so when placed side-by-side with this set of future Hall of Famers.

Between his rookie season and today, Noel’s teams recorded a cumulative record of 56-108, a dismal winning percentage of 34.1. Additionally, that’s not even counting the entire campaign Noel lost after he was drafted in 2013-14 due to surgery — that year, the 76ers went 19-63.

Needless to say, Noel is just happy to be on a team with high expectations at long last.

“This is something I’ve been really wanting my whole life, just to be on a talented team that can really complement my skill set and really show what I’m really about and go out on the court and play my game with no hesitation,” Noel added. “Coach Billy has given me the utmost confidence since I’ve been talking to him day-by-day.

“Just go out there and play your game. There’s nothing in it besides basketball and just being yourself — I felt very accepted.”

The starting center position in Oklahoma City has been long inhabited by Steven Adams, so Noel will likely continue to come off the bench. But beyond the Thunder’s relatively thin frontcourt — the two centers are joined only by Patrick Patterson and the recently re-signed Jerami Grant — the current depth chart means that Noel will be paired frequently with the speedy services of Schröder.

Aside from Michael Carter-Williams (15 PPG, 7.4 APG) in 2014-15 for 41 games, Noel has rotated through a slew of mid-level point guards. Over his four NBA seasons, a staggering 78.6 percent of his field goal attempts were between 0-10 feet. Even more, his combined career percentage on shots from 10 feet and beyond comes in at just 27.4. Generally speaking, Noel will regularly profit when he’s aided by a guard that’ll best position him for high percentage shot attempts. T.J. McConnell, Yogi Ferrell — both of whom have carved out solid professional roles despite going undrafted — and Dennis Smith Jr. have shown that playmaking ability at times, but Schröder may be another beast altogether.

Schröder’s assist rate in 2017-18 was among the league’s best at 35.2 percent — a mark that only trailed Ben Simmons, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, John Wall, J.J. Barea, LeBron James, James Harden and, naturally, Russell Westbrook. Even for an Atlanta Hawks team that ranked toward the bottom in most traditional categories, Schröder was an impactful game-changer more often than not — a factor that will definitely benefit Noel moving ahead.

Still, it’s not just the big names that Noel is eager to do battle alongside.

“It’s rejuvenating — I’ve been just working all summer trying to get my mind right for whatever situation I come into,” Noel said. “Thank God it’s the OKC Thunder. They got a great group of guys from Westbrook to PG leading the team to all these young guys out here — Hami [Diallo], from Kentucky, [Terrance] Ferguson — really some great pieces that can come up that they already have.

“It’s really a complete team that is really going to do some special things this year.”

In a Western Conference arms race that’s seen James move from Cleveland to Los Angeles, the Spurs cash out for a new superstar and DeMarcus Cousins join the virtually unbeatable juggernaut in Golden State, the Thunder’s offseason moves, albeit on a smaller scale, have flown under the radar. For a franchise that ranked first in blocks (9.1) and 11th in steals (5.0) per game, plus 10th in defensive rating (104.6), Noel should do nothing but bolster those strengths. On a two-year deal worth only the veteran minimum — Noel has a player option for 2019-20 — the center could easily become one of the NBA’s best bargains this season.

Ultimately, this is still a case of a player betting on himself — for Noel, it’s certainly not the first time he’s been willing to do that either. But after four seasons of extreme highs and lows, Noel is ready to make up for all that lost time — and with Oklahoma City, he’s in the perfect situation to do so.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA Daily: Can the Milwaukee Bucks be Real Contenders?

Do the Bucks now have the talent and coaching to legitimately contend for this year’s championship?

Shane Rhodes

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The Milwaukee Bucks weren’t very good in 2017.

While they had one of the best players in the world, Giannis Antetokounmpo, on the court at almost all times, they struggled to win games under then Head Coach Jason Kidd. While things improved with the transition to Joel Prunty, Milwaukee and its underperforming roster ultimately fell to the Boston Celtics, sans their two best players, in the first round of the postseason.

But with Mike Budenholzer, one-time Coach of the Year award winner and former head coach of the Atlanta Hawks, in the fold along with some new personnel, are the Bucks good enough to challenge the top teams in the NBA?

If their 2018 debut is anything to go by, the NBA needs to be on alert.

On the road against the Charlotte Hornets, Milwaukee looked completely dominant at times with the Greek Freak leading the charge in a 113-112 win. Antetokounmpo was his usual dominant self and finished the game with 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists.

The most important take away from their season debut, however, has nothing to do with Antetokounmpo. It’s the fact that he got a sizeable amount of help from his supporting cast.

The Bucks often looked like a one-man show last season, with Antetokounmpo doing his thing while the rest of the team failed to pull their collective weight. They often looked slow and were worse than average, defensively; Milwaukee was just 20th in pace-of-play and 18th in defensive rating last season. And, amidst the NBA’s three-point revolution, the Bucks ranked just 25th in three-point attempts and 22nd in three-point percentage.

In a nutshell, the Bucks system wasn’t an ideal workspace for its star player. Antetokounmpo, who isn’t a great long-range shooter himself, needs all the spacing he can get in order to be the best version of himself. And that is why the 2018 version of the Bucks could be so dangerous.

Going back to the 2013-14 regular season, Budenholzer’s first as the Hawks head coach, here is how Atlanta ranked compared to the rest of the league in three-point attempts: 2nd, 7th, 7th, 16th, 7th. Budenholzer has instilled that same three-point happy offensive system in Milwaukee. Not only have they played faster, but they are shooting more; the Bucks attempted 34 shots from beyond the arc, 10 more than they averaged per game last season.

More importantly, the Bucks have the players to take advantage of that system and clear the interior as much as possible for the multipositional and uber-athletic Antetokounmpo.

Khris Middleton, the often underrated two-way wing, is a career 39.2 percent three-point shooter. Eric Bledsoe, who struggled at times last season, has been solid from behind the arc for his career as well. Free agent additions Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, two big men who have steered into the three-point evolution of the NBA, have both shot 34 percent or better from three-point range over the last two seasons. Even rookie Donte DiVincenzo, who went two-for-four from three-point range against Charlotte, was a long distance specialist at Villanova and shot 37.8 percent from three during his three years with the school. The roster is loaded with more shooters than ever and they are being put in a position to shoot the long-ball, thanks to the gravity that Antetokounmpo has on the floor and Budenholzer’s system.

Now, as with almost everything, there could be some complications.

While shooting more shots per game could equate to more makes and, therefore, more points, it could, by the same logic, yield more missed shots as well. The Bucks aren’t a strong defensive team, nor have they been for the last four seasons or so, and those extra possessions for the opposition could kill the Bucks in the final stretch of games. Likewise, playing quickly can lead to more turnovers, creating further opportunities for opponents and hurting Milwaukee even further.

But, for now, the benefits seem to outeight the risks, and Antetokounmpo can cover up a lot of mistakes with the talent he possesses.

One game may seem like a small sample size to go on, but, if the Bucks can limit their offensive mishaps and defensive blunders, they have the chance to be a legitimate threat to win the Eastern Conference crown and, perhaps, the NBA title.

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NBA Daily: Kings Starters Show Promise Despite Loss

The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Spencer Davies

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The end result may be the same as it has been every season in the past decade, but the Sacramento Kings have something brewing for the first time in a long time.

Yes, a 25-9 lead was squandered and the game was lost to the Utah Jazz. Marvin Bagley III confusingly played fewer minutes than 14 of his fellow rookies in his NBA debut. They also forced more miscues than they committed, yet were still outscored 24-13 in points off of turnovers.

All of that makes it seem like Wednesday was the start to a long, frustrating season for the Kings, but don’t be so quick to judge. There was a ton of good to come out of the team’s season opener at the Golden 1 Center.

First off, what a night for Willie Cauley-Stein it was. He had the unenviable task of going head-to-head with Rudy Gobert, the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, to begin the fourth season of his career. We know that the 25-year-old isn’t necessarily a go-to scoring option, however, you wouldn’t have figured that to be the case if you watched the game.

Finishing with the third-most attempts for Sacramento, Cauley-Stein wasted no time and went right at Gobert when he touched the ball. Not once did he hesitate to put it on the floor, showing an improved, tighter handle on drives to the basket. Likely coming from film study, the 7-foot, 240-pound center excelled at using his body to get his shots up and over the “Stifle Tower” with great timing.

Cauley-Stein was determined to attack the paint all game long and showed no fear. He scored 19 of his 23 points with Gobert on the floor, including a thunderous alley-oop slam over the Frenchman following a screen-and-roll. To put the significance of this in perspective, his eight field goal makes are more than he’s had in each of the previous three seasons with Utah’s big man on the floor.

The Kings’ starters, in general, were especially solid, as all five players scored in double figures and had their squad’s best plus-minus ratings.

De’Aaron Fox swiped three steals, showed his playmaking skills and shared the love with his teammates, recording seven assists in addition to his 21 points. A candidate for a breakout year, Buddy Hield looked like the most comfortable player on the floor despite some lazy passes early, knocking down his signature off the dribble, mid-range fadeaways with ease.

Nemanja Bjelica used the threat of his outside shot to make his way to the basket for better looks and poured in 18 points. Starting at the wing, Yogi Ferrell held his own defensively against Donovan Mitchell and added a couple of threes to the mix as well.

Sacramento gave a double-digit led game away, but the players never gave in. During the fourth quarter, they got stops but just couldn’t seem to take advantage on the other side. It was the recurring theme of the night. The chances were there in transition. Now, they’ve got to work on completing those sequences and turning them into points.

Kings head coach Dave Joerger played essentially a nine-man rotation and got little out of his bench players. Justin Jackson struggled at the four spot and carved out 30 minutes of playing time in spite of it. Other than that, though, everybody in the second unit was on the floor for less than 17 minutes. It’s likely because of how well the starters performed, but they’ll need more out of those guys eventually.

There’s already a topic of discussion on the front of development vs. wins in Sacramento. Joerger’s addressed the matter with Bagley after the game and said it’s going to be hard to allocate minutes for a roster heavy with big men.

The counter-argument to that is simple—he’s the second overall pick of the draft. You have to find time for him, period. There should be no excuse not to regardless of who’s on the team. Don’t forget about Bagley being so talented that he re-classified to play with an age group above his own and still dominated as the ACC Player of the Year at Duke. He was a true freshman!

Aside from that whole debate, the Kings did not roll over and quit when they blew a 16-point lead and trailed by 14 soon after. In a game of runs, their young group hung in there and battled until the clock hit zero. Keep in mind this is a ballclub short of last year’s starting shooting guard still, too.

There may not be a whole lot of winning to come by in Sacramento—what with competing in the Pacific Division and Western Conference—but the season could be easier on the eyes if this is the type of effort they’re going to give on a nightly basis. Of course, we’ve got to be careful here since it’s only one game.

Even so, consider this writer in on “Kings SZN.”

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NBA Daily: Offseason Acquisitions Making An Early Impact

Basketball Insiders takes a look at five players on new teams who had a big impact in their respective season openers.

Drew Maresca

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Starting a new job is hard: new co-workers, new processes, new expectations, etc. Most of us have done it, and we can attest that it’s challenging on both a personal and professional level. It’s no different in the NBA. Sure, there is greater familiarity amongst players than for, say, a software engineer jumping from Facebook to Google, but the stakes are also higher. Most people are cut some slack initially due to a lack of familiarity, but not in the NBA. Players are expected to hit the ground running, and are judged harshly for getting off to slow starts. 

Even still, some players are simply so skilled that their impact is immediately obvious. With that being said, let’s analyze the top five debuts of players who changed teams this past offseason. 

  1. Kawhi Leonard — His post-game comments may have been understated Wednesday night, but his on-court performance was not. Leonard received an incredible amount of support from the Raptors crowd, and he did not disappoint. He posted 24 points and 12 rebounds and was +13 for the game. His offensive arsenal was on full display; he demonstrated his athleticism on dunks, his shooting prowess and range and his willingness to do some dirty work on the glass. No surprises here, but it is encouraging that he came back from the quad injury and looked mostly unchanged. Bonus points to Kyle Lowry for going the extra mile to get Leonard the ball (e.g., passing on an easy transition layup to feed Leonard). 
  1. DeMar DeRozan — While Kawhi did his normal thing, DeRozan may have had his foot on the gas a bit more — or maybe his performance was more a result of greater necessity. Either way, DeRozan delivered. He scored 28 points on 7 for 11 shooting, with four rebounds and four assists in 38 minutes. Similar to Leonard, no one should be surprised by DeRozan’s debut, especially given how upset he was initially with the trade. It’s even less surprising when you consider that he transitioned to playing for Coach Gregg Popovich, whose system is tried and true. If he keeps this up and all goes well for San Antonio, it could re-ignite questions about the Leonard-Popovich-Spurs snafu that resulted in the trade in the first place. 
  1. New New Orleans Pelicans (Julius Rande and Elfrid Payton – tie) — While Anthony Davis continues to be the main story line for the Pelicans, both free agents signings made their mark in the team’s season opener. Payton did so by posting a triple double in his first outing, demonstrating the versatility and promise that led the Pelicans to sign him in the first place; he notched 10 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds in route to an impressive +23. Randle’s performance was probably a bit flashier, but maybe less impactful on the whole. Nevertheless, Randle proved his worth in his first game with the team, finishing with an impressive 25 points on an efficient 9 for 15. He also chipped in eight rebounds and showed his versatility, leading fast breaks and dishing three assists. Concerns over the Pelicans may have been a bit overblown — but that might have more to do with Davis’ impact than the supporting cast. Time will tell.
  1. Brook Lopez — How did the perception of a former top-tier center slip so far so quickly? Just 17 months ago, Lopez was wrapping up another typical Brook Lopez-esque season: 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 blocks per game. Sure, the league has passed by centers who can’t extend the defense and switch onto guards in the pick and roll, but Lopez introduced an effective three-point shot in 2016-17, shooting .34.6 percent from deep. And yet, one year on the Lakers bench was all it took for the league to begin to overlook and/or underrate Lopez. That was a mistake. Lopez seems to be the same player he’s always been. He’s no longer a go-to option, so his scoring will likely be down from his 17.8 points per game career average; but he will contribute on offense and block some shots on defense. In his first game with the Bucks — with whom he signed for the bargain salary of $3.4 million — he scored 14 points and grabbed three rebounds in 21 minutes of action. Lopez should continue to aid the already talented Bucks. Can he push them deeper into the playoff? If he does, he would likely secure himself one more pay day.
  2. Dennis Shroder — Shroder’s performance may have been inflated by the absence of Russell Westbrook. Correction — Shroder’s performance was definitely inflated by the absence of Westbook. But he demonstrated his value all the same. Oddly, the Hawks decided they wanted to part ways with the 25 year old point guard. Their loss. He notched 21 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out six assists in 34 minutes of action. And it will get easier for him considering the Thunder opened against Steph Curry and the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Shroder gives the Thunder a third playmaker — exactly what they were lacking in last year’s playoffs against the Jazz, and exactly what they hoped Melo could be.

One thing all the guys on this list have in common (beyond being above average players) is their willingness to take on a challenge. Nothing in sports — or life — is guaranteed. But we will have a clearer picture if their respective changes of scenery were made for better or worse. If they were done successfully, they can shift the balance of power in the league, and rework the competitive balance to a pretty crazy extent.

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